Thresholds: Mat Collishaw Exhibition At Somerset House

Internationally-acclaimed artist, Mat Collishaw returns this summer with his latest show, Thresholds. The exhibition will be held at Somerset House, from 18th May through to 11th June, and takes place in virtual reality.

The exhibition recreates William Fox Talbot’s 1839 presentation of photographic prints, one of the very first public displays of, what was then, a brand new technology. The original exhibition took place at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Unfortunately, that original building no longer exists – but thanks to virtual reality, it has been recreated by VMI Studio (as well as photographic historian, Pete James; Paul Tennant from Nottingham University’s Mixed Reality Laboratory; respected authority on Fox Talbot, Larry Schaaf; Architect / Architectural Historian David Blissett; and The Whitewall Company, London) in stunning detail.

In the 178 years since they were first exhibited, Fox Talbot’s original images have faded almost beyond recognition. The surviving photographs exist only in light-proof vaults to protect their integrity. Thresholds, therefore, offers a unique opportunity, not only to rediscover this historic exhibition, but also to view images that have since been lost.

Mat Collishaw Exhibition in Virtual Reality

Whilst wearing a state-of-the-art HTC Vive virtual reality headset, participants will enter an actual room with tangible objects. The entire room, in real life, is a blank white space, but from within the virtual world into which the participant is immersed, so appears the original exhibition space and exhibits as if they were truly there. The only things to remind them of the real world are the headset strapped to their face, and the backpack containing a laptop (powering the VR) on their back.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition, which lends consideration to the very experience of viewing, is that of the participants themselves being viewed. As they wander around in the virtual exhibition, awaiting visitors can peer through holes in the physical wall, into the room where the participants stand in empty space. The peep holes are aligned with the virtual images on the wall, so as a participant gazes at the image, so that gaze is returned, unbeknownst to them.

That sense of eeriness at being unknowingly watched is heightened as other participants within the room show up as ghostly shapes within the virtual space. Ostensibly, this is to prevent them from bumping into one another – but adds to the illusion of having been transported into a time long past.

Collishaw has said of the exhibition:

‘I have been looking to work with virtual reality for a number of years and it has now become a feasible medium for me to use in an artwork. VR’s ability to enable visitors to revisit the birth of photography – a medium that has come to saturate our lives – is uncanny and compelling. It’s also quite appropriate as VR is the total 360 degree immersion of a subject within an image, and is itself one of the many innovations spawned by the invention of photography.’

Collishaw is well-known for his witty interplay between history and modern technologies, and Thresholds takes this trope and applies it with precision and thoughtfulness. We can examine how far technology has come, and to the post-truth era it has brought us. What is reality in the age of the image, and how has our visual world altered our perceptions of the world?

Thresholds is more than a virtual recreation of a historical event. It is clearly an artwork that represents a marked progression in Collishaw’s career. The uncanny elements – ghostly apparitions and peering eyes, combined with the chants of Chartist protestors on the street outside, and the questions raised by the very virtue of the subject matter and its media, make for a poignant, fascinating, and strongly thought-provoking work. As Collishaw puts it:

“There will be alternate levels of reality and unreality. This is a virtual reality of a virtual reality of reality.”

Thresholds is running from 18th May 2017 to 11th June 2017 at Somerset House in London, and subsequently at:

  • Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery 17/06/2017- 03/09/2017
  • Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire 09/09/2017 – 29/10/2017
  • Bodleian Library, Oxford  09/03/2018 – 15/04/2018
  • National Media Museum, Bradford  09/07/2018 – 02/09/2018

Related Reading:

The Cultural History of Photography

Mat Collishaw: A Retrospective